Although hip deep in history that goes back to the founding of the nation, Secaucus doesn’t have a lot of monuments to the past, historic relics it has preserved as markers to its rich heritage.
Historic city hall is gone; so are the county institutions that were once located at Laurel Hill, as are the pig farms, greenhouses, and other things that made up the town’s long history.
But the roots of Secaucus go back far. For many years, some of the tide gates installed by the original Dutch farmers still stood at Mill Creek and other parts of the waterways surrounding Secaucus.
One of the icons to the past was a place called Tony’s Old Mill, a hunting lodge turned restaurant that served as a kind of bridge between what Secaucus once was and what it became. Located where Mill Point Park is today, Tony’s Old Mill was a popular hangout for locals for decades.
Last month, Anthony Calderone died at 99, taking with him vivid memories of different Secaucus than the one that it has become over the last few decades.
Calderone, along with Howie Elwell, father of the former mayor, helped build up the area at a time when Secaucus and much of this part of the world were very different.
For decades, people used to come to Tony's Old Mill to eat, drink, and talk. It became a haunt of fisherman, boaters, and old-timers, all of whom could still recall a far wilder life on the Hackensack River, when generations of children wandered the wetlands to fish, hunt, and trap.
And even in the late 1990s when the town took over the property for development of Mill Creek Point, old timers still talked about what life was once like on the river.
Surrounded on three sides by water and reeds, with a single long road leading to it from the area of Schmidt's Woods, the Old Mill was always a place of local secrets, where longtime residents used to celebrate holidays or just go for dinner.
“You could nearly drink it. We swam in it, we stood in the mud.” – Anthony Calderone
Sawmills and gristmills operated in Secaucus since the 1760s, and one of the gristmills built in 1840 stood on the left bank of Mill Creek. By 1860, the mill was in ruins, but remained a marker on maps for years.
Elwell and Calderone built the restaurant in 1947. At the time, the area was largely desolate, flouting theories that some of the original building remained as part of the existing structure. Arthur Treacy purchased the property in 1965. Former Mayor Dennis Elwell worked at the restaurant, as did a number of local kids over the years.
A large section of the millstone, which had been quarried as a single piece and shipped to Secaucus from Virginia, was found in a ditch near the mill in 1970 and was placed in the restaurant’s lobby. It was 44 inches in diameter. A few scattered pieces were found at Stonewall Lane.
Except for a single chimney, Tony's Old Mill had vanished by the time Tony gave an interview about its history in 2001.
Then 87 years old, Calderone remembered a time when he took walks in the meadows and didn't know how to get home again.
"That was before I was 10," he recalled.
He built the restaurant, the boat launch, and the shooting range.
“I planted the trees. I even put in the road," he said.
At the height of his business in the early 1960s, Calderone housed over 100 boats there.
"People say there was a mill here, and there was, but it was a saw mill, not a mill for wheat. And that burned down during World War II," he said.
As a kid, he and his friends wandered the banks of nearby Mill Creek. There was no road and the nearest house – Shriever's Farm – was nearly a half-mile away.
Calderone said the water was still fresh and cedar woods stood along a region where the Turnpike now runs. He said that when he started building on the site, he used to travel across the creek to get wood. There was also a cedar woods across the Hackensack River where Giants stadium stands.
Death in a suckhole
"We called it the Seven Days Woods because a guy died in a suckhole and it took seven days for anyone to find his body," Calderone said. A suckhole, he explained, is something like quick sand, except it is made out of mud. "Once it gets a grip on you, you can't get out."
The meadowlands were a different place then, with different kinds of plants and different kinds of wild life. Instead of foxtail, a kind of reed that grows here now, cattail grew here. Wild rice grew in the water, drawing birds. Flowers decorated the water with bright yellow and bright blue hues. He remembers when he and other kids used to pick them and bring them to their teachers in school.
"That was before the water got polluted," he said. "You could nearly drink it. We swam in it, we stood in the mud. We didn't have to worry about stepping on bottles."
There were legendary river rats, hunters, and fishermen with names like James Ludlow and Old Man Doyle.
"They came here early in the morning and stayed out all day, trapping and hunting," he said.
Calderone said the Meadowlands had plenty of game including muskrat, mink, weasel, opossum, raccoon, and pheasant.
"It was heaven for hunters," he said.
But the area also had a more sinister reputation during Prohibition.
"Before 1933, people supposedly went up there to buy whiskey and home-made beer," according to Howie Elwell.
During the Great Depression, Calderone built many of the dikes on the river, and eyed the property where he would later build. He managed to buy the property in 1947 for $600.
The construction of the Oradell Dam and the breaking of dikes in the Meadowlands in 1950 started a dramatic change in the Meadowlands, turning the fresh water into salt water as the tides made their way further upstream. The trees died off and the freshwater plants were replaced by varieties native to salt water.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.